14 March 2009

Second Address: Justification through Faith Alone, Derek Thomas (PCRT 2009 Sacramento)

by Dan Phillips

Well, yesterday was fun, but exhausting. Be warned for future conferences here: mind the parking! I got a ticket parked in what I was told was a six-hour zone. (One-hour. Grr.)

This meeting was held at 9am Saturday, 3/14/09.

After the first few words, you realize that Derek Thomas is "not from 'round here." Thomas comes from Wales, Derek Thomas. He's an Alliance Council member and a professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Thomas ministers with m'man Ligon Duncan at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. Thomas earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wales, Lampeter in Calvin’s preaching on the book of Job, and has authored many books.

We began by singing the great hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy," followed by the reading of Galatians 2:15-16 by Steven Lawson. Then Richard Phillips introduced Dr. Thomas, and he began.

Thomas began with noting that he would not have believed 20 or even 10 years ago that justification would have been under fire as a fundamental, basic doctrinal truth. Particularly, it is remarkable that this question is resurfacing in the Reformed community, not just the shapeless Evangelical community.

Thomas then read from Romans 3:21-31. He noted that, unlike Galatians, this is not from a polemic epistle nor section. These are the apostle's genuine, deep reflections on justification. While sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the material principle of the Reformation, as Melancthon said. Luther rightly identified justification as the pivot on which all hangs.

Thomas identifies three pillars.

First: need for justification. We all fail to take Romans 3:23 with sufficient seriousness. It is a climactic statement to which Paul has been building up. It is a summary of Romans 1:19 — 3:22; all has been leading towards this statement. Jew or Gentile, all are beneficiaries of the revelation of God, and thus are without excuse (Romans 1:20). Though a man be beyond the pale of special revelation, he is condemned for his rejection of the display he has of God's magnificent being in creation. They reject God, and thus produce the catalogue of sins listed out in Romans 1:29-31 - which are themselves a manifestation of the wrath of God in delivering them over to their depravity.

Then Paul turns to the man who does possess special revelation as embodied in the Law. They too are sinners and condemned (Romans 2:2, 6, 12-13; 3:9ff.). Thus the effect is that every mouth is stopped (an allusion, he thinks, to Job 40:4), and the whole world is guilty before God (Romans 3:19-20). Lloyd-Jones defined a Christian as a man or woman whose mouth has been stopped.

So in Romans 3:23, Paul not merely says that all are law-breakers, but more that they fall short of that for which God had created them - the reflection of His glory. They have not merely broken God's law, but have failed to be what God intended them to be, and thus reflect the image of Satan. And so, an immeasurable gulf stretches between what we were destined to be, and where Adamic rebellion has put us, having forfeited communion and fellowship with God.

That is the state to which justification restores us, as placarded in Romans 5:1 — we have peace with God, as Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden before the Fall. Anselm answered Cur Deus Homo? by arguing that, in part, people might be restored to a place of being able to glorify God. The goal is eschatological in nature, culminating in the reinstatement of renewed man.

Second: provision of justification.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we have true "edgy" theology. Without denying Christ's impeccability, Paul says that God made Him to be sin for us. That's the Gospel, the Good News. Not that Jesus Christ is Lord — if you are not a believer, that is not "good news"! On the day when God judges the secrets of men and condemns them, the news that Christ is King will not be good news to the damned. That Christ died for the sins of His people, in their stead — that is good news!

"But now," in this epoch of unfolding revelation (Romans 3:21), as a consequence of the person and work of Jesus, God shows His righteousness at the present time (v. 26). But what does "being justified" mean? In the OT, righteousness is the integrity of God's being, that He will not budge, in being consistent with Himself. See Proverbs 17:15 (on which I posted a two-part study here). Clearly to "justify the wicked" is to rule that a wicked man is in right relation with the law, which is an abomination. The picture is drawn from the law-courts.

And so that root is seen here in Romans 3. How can we sinners be declared to be in a right relationship with God's law? Paul says it is apart from the works of the law (v. 21), it is by His grace as a gift (v. 24). It is by Christ's blood, not the Law's works nor our motives or deeds. Paul is not content merely to say "by His grace," but adds "as a gift," to make it crystal-clear and pre-empt our proclivity to distort and bring our works. It is no Christian work or position or association or suffering that saves us. It is Christ alone, by grace alone.

Here Thomas dwelt on how prone we are to return to works-righteousness. He heard the Tempter's voice when he was introduced once as "pastor of a very successful church." He must have it made with God, in that case! We're tempted to think we're saved by grace... plus a few works of our own. We need to preach the Gospel to ourselves, constantly.

Then he insisted on the rendering "propitiation" in 3:25, quoting Stott that Paul is describing God's solution to the human predicament, which is not only sin, but God's wrath on sin; we must be delivered from both, and propitiation describes how God does that. "God gave Himself to us to save us from Himself."

Then Thomas recited the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26, which ends with "and give you peace." He asked "How?" Because God was willing to say to His Son, "The Lord curse You and drive You out, the Lord make His face darkness towards You and condemn You, the Lord turn His face from You and give you the pains of Hell." This brought me to tears. What a great salvation, what a costly salvation.

Third: implications of justification.
Faith is the suitable instrument for (not cause of) justification. It can boast of nothing. We can't even work it up on our own, God must grant it to us. We are justified by faith alone, apart from works.

Does that make us antinomians? By no means (Romans 3:31). Thomas said the law has a role in the Christian life.

In conclusion: we are not saved because we believe in justification by faith alone. We are saved because we believe in Jesus Christ and His atonement for us.

Dan Phillips's signature


Stefan said...

Just rich with truths.

'Twas good to be reminded of Proverbs 17:15, and the two posts you did on that verse last year.

Sproul did a handled Numbers 6:24-26 in a similar fashion at T4G last year—when speaking of "the curse motif"—and it was similarly impactful.

You're the man, Dan—by the grace of God.

Ligon Duncan said...

Thanks, Dan, for this helpful synopsis. I love to hear Derek preach and I'm those gathered there feasted on the word of God.

DJP said...

It was a real blessing.

One quality of Derek's that doesn't come across as clearly on an audio alone is his wry, dry sense of humor. Lovely.